David Coates

Postings… (2) Standard Dilemmas of Centre-Left Politics


On a day-to-day basis, it is hard to break free of a mindset dominated in the UK by the details of the Brexit negotiations or in the United States by the tweeting of an emotionally volatile president. But in both political systems, the normal rhythm of elections fortunately persists – and because it does, mid-term and presidential elections can be dimly seen on the political horizon in America, as can the first series of post-Brexit general elections in the UK. In both political systems, therefore, it is not too soon to begin to ponder the nature of politics, post-Brexit and post-Trump. Nor is it too early to begin pondering the possibilities and problems associated with the rise to political power of a re-energized Centre-Left. Indeed, in relation to this at least, pondering the standard dilemmas of Centre-Left politics is all the more vital now, because if those dilemmas are not addressed well before the event, they will come back to haunt progressive politics in its next iteration – be that either in the UK or in the US. The Left in power has failed too many times for any of us to want to see that failure again.

So,  keeping a Corbyn-led Labour Party and a left-leaning Democratic Party firmly in view, the three standard dilemmas that will inevitably beset their politics are worthy of careful consideration this early in the game: the dilemmas of how best to cope with a difficult inheritance when in power, of how best to build out from that inheritance to a better future, and of how best to repel the sustained conservative  pushback against that building that necessarily comes with the territory.

Dilemma 1: Climbing Out of Holes.

The greatest single dilemma faced by the majority of Centre-Left governments down the years has been one generated by the tension between the conditions necessary for their electoral victory and those necessary for their success in office. Many such parties have found themselves elected into office only when the economic conditions inherited by them were so difficult that they effectively precluded the easy implementation of progressive programmes. For paradoxically, if economic times are good, parties offering extensive sets of social reform often have difficulty persuading electorates that they are even necessary. And yet when times are bad – and electorates turn away from governing parties of the Right in the hope of something better – the economic surpluses needed to allow the easy funding of extensive social reforms are invariably denuded by the scale and severity of the bad times themselves. Far too often for comfort, in consequence, Centre-Left parties have responded by trying to squeeze one last ounce of growth out of a failing economic system, only to find themselves quickly identified by many of their potential voters as either the cause of that failure, or as too constrained in their critique of it. Either way, as periods of transition between social settlements open-up, parties of the Centre-Left often find themselves seriously tarnished by their involvement in what has immediately gone before – in the 1990s embrace by the Clinton Administration of Reaganite policies on welfare-to-work, for example, or in the later flirtation of New Labour with Thatcherite neoliberalism – flirtations which make it all the more vital, therefore,  that if sufficient progressive electoral support is ever to be won again, Centre-Left parties must use their years out of power to make a fundamental break with the practices of their party when last in power. Off with the old, in with the new, while mining the past for lessons for the future – this has to be the fundamental pattern of reflection and change that stands at the very core of effective progressive politics – and yet it is a pattern that is extraordinarily difficult to initiate and sustain in progressive parties whenever a residue of leading figures within the party identify powerfully with the old and feel personally threatened by the new.

Dilemma 2: Bridging Settlements

Such a rupture with the past is all the more important now, however, because both the US and UK economies are currently operating in the shadow of the 2008 collapse of the social settlement ushered in in the 1980s by both Reagan and Thatcher. Both are in consequence in need of a new growth strategy to replace the neoliberal strategy that worked for a while, but which as it collapsed left general living standards blocked and swathes of marginal voters disaffected with the political class as a whole. In that context of transition – between a social settlement that has failed and a new one still needing to be created – Centre-Left political leadership requires highly sophisticated levels of understanding and action. For when a particular social settlement is up and running – as (in the UK) the Attlee settlement was in the 1950s/60s, and the Thatcher one was in the 1980s/1990s – the task before parties of both the Left and the Right becomes simply that of managing the dominant settlement successfully. Politics in those periods becomes largely a matter of marginal differences between parties amid high levels of basic consensus:  and as such largely a question of jockeying for positions of leadership within a broad political class that is largely at peace with itself. But in the period of transition between social settlements – of a kind we are living through now – the job of the political class becomes harder. Political leadership then requires some understanding of why the previous settlement failed and how it can best be replaced. Political leadership also requires sufficient agility to design and advocate long-term changes while simultaneously dealing with the fall-out from the collapse of the old ways of organizing the society and running the economy – dealing, that is, with an electorate whose expectations cannot now be met in the old way and who in consequence often feel cheated and let down, even scared and desperate for a return to some imaginary preferable past. In such a period of flux and transition, progressive political leadership requires the capacity to look forward and backwards simultaneously –  the capacity to develop and articulate a critique of the old settlement and policy consensus that simultaneously points the way forward to a better settlement and to more progressive and credible set of policy alternatives.

Dilemma 3: Resisting Conservative Push-back

Neither of these dilemmas are easily transcended – nor is this third one – but each is easily reproduced if not recognized and tackled ahead of time.  For there is certainly no avoiding dilemma 3: of how best to respond to conservative pushback when radical changes are required. Nor is there any way of escaping the fact that the more radical the progressive programme turns to be, the more pushback it will generate, and the more fear-mongering it will attract. In the UK right now, for example, such a pushback is already well underway –  a steady drip of hysterical newspaper articles, for example, pondering which is the greater threat to future UK prosperity: Corbyn or Brexit? While in the US, a daily diet of Fox News is currently keeping the Trump-base on high alert: with each Trump voter ever more convinced by what they hear from a well-orchestrated conservative media message that their Second Amendment Rights are under serious challenge, and that with Sanders will come socialism and Venezuela-type tyranny. Only a powerful and self-confident counter-assertion by progressives themselves can keep that pushback at bay – a counter-assertion that must be anchored in the recognition that this time round (as in 1945), the needs of managed capitalism and those of progressive social reform are moving in the same direction: that only  a just social settlement can release the pent-up capacity of workers in both economies to deploy their currently under-utilized skills and capacities, by ensuring that their work is rewarded fairly and that their social needs are prioritized in the design of public policy.

There is no austerity route to renewed prosperity for all: which is why ultimately parties of the Centre-Left will find themselves one day facing the possibility of political power again. But winning and using that power will require a more assertive and self-confident Centre-Left politics to be in place well before the moment of electoral choice – because only through such counter-hegemonic politics can we guarantee that the progressive coalition in both societies will arrive at its voting moment fully mobilized, able and equipped to support Centre-left parties in power through all the political struggles that inevitably lie ahead.

These arguments are developed more fully in David Coates, Flawed Capitalism: The Anglo-American Condition and Its Resolution, and in the accompanying collection of essays Reflections on the Future of the Left, both published in the UK by Agenda Publishing and in the US by Columbia University Press.


David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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